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How Good Is a Dog’s Memory? Canine Intelligence Facts

Written by: Melissa Gunter

Last Updated on July 9, 2024 by Dogster Team

a fluffy dog lying on the grass and tilting its head

How Good Is a Dog’s Memory? Canine Intelligence Facts

The relationship between humans and dogs is hard to put into words. Our dogs can be our best friends, our protectors, and our shoulders to cry on when times get tough. It isn’t unusual for us to sit back and remember dogs we’ve had in our past. Perhaps you remember your first dog from childhood and shed a few tears when you think about the fun of growing up with them. Maybe the dog you adopted when you moved out on your own holds a special place in your heart, and you think of them often.

But what about our dogs? Do they have those types of memories? If we adopt a dog from the shelter, do they think about their previous owner? Yes, dogs have memories, but understanding the depth of that memory is where things get more complicated. Let’s take a look at recent research to help you better understand your dog’s memory and how conceptions are ever-changing.

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Short-Term Memory

When it comes to short-term memory, dogs do quite well compared to other animals in the animal kingdom. Dogs range at around 2 minutes with their short-term memory. Bees have a short-term memory of only 2.5 seconds, while many birds are only slightly above that number. When compared with a cat, however, dogs come out with the short end of the stick. A cat’s short-term memory lasts upward of 16 hours. Keep in mind, however, that short-term memory has to do with what the animal feels is important to remember. You, their food source, and their abilities to care for themselves do not fall into this category.

owner stroking the head of a cane corso dog
Image Credit: Jaromir Chalabala, Shutterstock

Short-Term Memory Comparison

Humans 20 to 30 seconds
Dogs 2 minutes
Cats 16 hours
Bees 2.5 seconds

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Long-Term Memory

Often, pet owners wonder how long their pet can actually remember them if they are apart. Memory for animals is associated with both positive and negative experiences. If a dog is mistreated by someone wearing a hat, they may associate bad experiences each time they see a hat. The same can be said for good things. If you’re a loving pet owner, each time your dog sees you, it will associate good feelings with you. In most cases, however, it is suspected that dogs can access long-term memory for up to 5 years, sometimes longer. When it comes to animals, dolphins can remember clicks made by other dolphins for up to 20 years, which is an amazing feat.

woman hugging her dog on the beach
Image Credit: Shift Drive, Shutterstock

Long-Term Memory Comparison

Humans Lifetime
Dogs 2 to 5 years
Cats Up to 10 years (if they want to)
Dolphins 20 years

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Spatial Memory

Have you ever noticed how your dog seems to remember where you hide the treats? They also remember where the food and water bowls are located and where to find their favorite toy. This is a function of something called spatial memory. This function of a dog’s memory is how they associate events, both positive and negative. It’s also how a dog decides whether they want to repeat an action. If your dog does something that feels unpleasant, spatial memory helps them recall the outcome of the event so they don’t repeat it.

A study was conducted to determine whether a dog could use spatial memory to locate objects when detours and obstacles were put to use 1. Turns out, they can. The study revealed dogs could decode the information and change their tactics due to the situation. It is also believed that an animal’s spatial memory can be associated with a scent which helps them recall events, people, and location.

woman holding shoes talking to her dog
Image Credit: Momentum studio, Shutterstock

Episodic Memory

Episodic memory is how a dog connects events and feelings. This was tested during a study where 17 dogs watched as a human acted by lying down. Without any type of warning, the dog was then told to do it. The results showed that the dogs were able to do what they’d witnessed the humans do without being told to repeat it before the action. Amazingly, the dogs continued to repeat the action. They were told to do it after a minute, several minutes, and even an hour. This covered both the short and long-term memory windows. Many of the dogs continued performing the lie-down action but were showing signs of decline as more time passed.

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Final Thoughts

As you can see, learning about the memories of dogs is an ongoing process where more research is warranted. What we do know is dogs associate positive and negative experiences with their memories. If you want to be a happy memory for your dog, whether only for a few minutes or for a few years, make sure you treat them well and with love.

Featured Image Credit: chrisukphoto, Shutterstock

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